With rivers, caves and canyons, plus down-home crafts, food and music, the Ozark Mountains tumble along a colorful plateau full of possibilities for families who like the country. |
Views from the county two-lane roads show fantastic peaks topping 2,500 feet along a range running southwest through Missouri from St. Louis and into the northwest quadrant of Arkansas.
Locals we met in tiny, crazy-named towns like Blue Eye, Welcome Home, Ben Hur and Fifty Six were helpful with directions, but we appreciated their jokes the most.
"Now this is NOT the type of pillar you sleep on," said Lee West, an experienced tour guide at Meramec Caverns, the classic Route 66 stop southwest of St. Louis.
West said he grew up with rocks in his pockets while exploring a good portion of Missouri's 6,300 caves, and "wrecked a lot of my mom's clothes dryers along the way."
Meramec's first marketer and owner, Lester Dill, was a pioneer in the use of billboards and bumper stickers, and he boosted visitor numbers further with the use of early radio ads during St. Louis Cardinals games.
Meramec Caverns still is run by his descendants. Fun remnants of the old kitsch hang on, too. At the magnificent cave pillar West referenced, for example, there's a light show backed by Kate Smith's redition of "God Bless America."
More good clean fun awaited our boys, ages 10 and 12. First, we did our maiden family zip-line adventure, rolling 1,250 feet over the Meramec River. The next day, with lunches packed by Meramec's staff, we floated in rafts for two hours, past the river's spectacular bluffs and through actual wilderness.
Meramec is one of the premier stops on the "Mother Road," as John Steinbeck called Route 66, but after a good night's sleep, we left it and headed southwest to Johnson's Shut-ins State Park, near Middlebrook, Mo.
To reach the remote and cozy pine cabin we had reserved, we wound through miles of winding road above the beautiful Arcadia Valley. Restaurants, gas stations and other signs of civilization are scarce in this part of the Ozarks, so in order not to make dinner at the cabin, we wandered into a great late-night catfish and pulled-pork barbecue joint called Baylee Jo's in Ironton.
On this clear night, the stars were as bright as anywhere at Johnson's Shut-ins, named for the rapids and whirlpools carved into canyons by the Black River. In the morning, it looked more like Colorado than anything we'd expected to find in Missouri, so hiking and wading in the cold mountain water were the obvious activities.
The next day, we found slightly safer rock-climbing for our boys at Elephant Rocks State Park, where truly elephant-sized granite boulders rise unexpectedly out of the landscape. Formed by hot magma 1.5 billion years ago, the granite elephants were so fun to climb, our 10-year-old wanted to buy a cabin nearby.
After an overnight pit stop in Branson, it's an easy trip south over the Arkansas border to the one-of-a-kind Ozark Folk Center, a mile north of Mountain View.
Designated a state park in 1973, the Folk Center is a museum that preserves and promotes Ozark music, traditional crafts and food. Classes, concerts and crafts are offered by more than 300 member musicians and craftspeople, and the center hosts a massive folk music festival each spring.
During the weekend we visited, Arlo Guthrie was slated to perform, and our family peeked into another more informal guitar performance. We also checked in on master craft demonstrations by world-famous broom maker Shawn Hoefer, printing press operator Troy Odom and soap-maker Linda Odom, Troy's wife.
The crafts are all for sale, and Linda's lavender-scented soap now graces our bathroom.
While our tour barely scratched the surface of the Ozarks' greatest hits, families or any other road-trippers in the area of Mountain View should be sure to spend a day or two hiking or kayaking in the federally protected Buffalo National River between the northwest Arkansas towns of Jasper and Ponca.
Established in 1972, Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles and is a rare remaining undammed river with massive bluffs amid seemingly endless wilderness.
An isolated rustic-chic house we rented near Ponca through the Buffalo Outdoor Center was our base for exploring this strikingly beautiful area. It reminded us of Ireland, but somehow still felt like a secret.
With his resume and encyclopedic knowledge of the area, Mills guided us to elk sightings in the Boxley Valley, where elk were reintroduced in the 1980s, and to two hiking trails.
The Lost Valley trail boasts a hangar-sized "false cave" with one open side, and a very real cave visitors can explore with their own flashlights. Deep in its black interior, there is a waterfall.
Mills' other recommended trail -- Hawksbill Crag -- features the iconic Whitaker Point, a place so dramatic it's instantly recognizable from tourism ads and posters. During our visit, we had it all to ourselves.
IF YOU GO
Destination: Ozark Mountains
Meramec Caverns: americascave.com
Great stop: Our 9-day Ozark spring break trip was about Blue highways, not Branson, though we did stop there for 24 hours of buffets, a good show and water parking at Grand Country Inn, where kids get their own "hillbilly" shack right inside the room. grandcountry.com/vacation-packages.
Staying where: Rent a cabin at Johnsons Shut-ins State Park, where you'll need to bring sunscreen, mosquito spray and water shoes. mostateparks.com/park/johnsons-shut-ins-state-park. In Ponca, we rented cabins and canoes at the Buffalo Outdoor Center. buffaloriver.com.
Not to miss: Ozark Folk Center, ozarkfolkcenter.com.
Dining, too: Good regional comfort food is available at Baylee Jo's in Ironton, bayleejos.com, and at the nationally recognized Ozark Café in Jasper, Ark., near Ponca, (870) 446-2976.
You should know: Plan ahead for a lack of cellular phone service through wide swaths of the Ozarks. After almost forgetting that getting off the grid still happens in the U.S., it was part of the charm of our family trip.
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